By Heather R Beatty

This research, in response to vast use of eighteenth-century newspapers, medical institution registers and case notes, examines the adventure of struggling with fearful sickness - a supposedly upper-class illness. Beatty concludes that, faraway from the stereotyped portrayal of worried sufferers in modern fiction, 'nervousness' used to be a sound clinical prognosis with a company foundation in eighteenth-century clinical conception.

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Additional resources for Nervous Disease in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Reality of a Fashionable Disorder (Studies for the Society for the Social History of Medicine)

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Historians have successfully established the presence of a group of ‘nerve doctors’ in the late eighteenth century. 9 This study analyses the professional lives and medical theories of a much wider group of late eighteenth-century nerve doctors. Instead of placing these practitioners in the context of the rest of the medical profession, it evaluates them in Quacks, Social Climbers, Social Critics and Gentlemen Physicians 39 the context of other nerve specialists. Through a detailed examination of clinical and medical lecture notes and publications on nervous disease, as well as surviving case records, consultation letters and personal papers of various nerve specialists, this chapter details the professional hierarchy of Britain’s late eighteenth-century nerve doctors.

It reveals that far from providing any sort of unified front against nervous disease, the confused nature of the disorder significantly divided the medical profession. 7 Practitioners were divided based upon the level and quality of their education, career credentials (including honours awarded and prestigious hospital appointments), participation in academic societies, and the number and innovative nature of their publications on the nerves. The sphere of influence of various doctors was also taken into account through an examination of the number of editions of their publications, their appearance in the footnotes of publications of fellow medical practitioners, and their inclusion or omission in collections of medical biographies during the period.

123 Whytt acknowledged to his medical students in his clinical lectures in the early 1760s that ‘many speak of this [nervous] disease as a Proteus of no determined shape’. Of course, Whytt continued, ‘such an account of it to you would be vague and useless’. 124 Whytt’s Observations boldly created this much needed general definition. Dividing nervous disease into three categories, the ‘simply nervous’, the ‘hysteric (women)’, and Defining Nervous Disease in Eighteenth-Century Britain 29 the ‘hypochondriac (men)’, Whytt delineated their most basic characteristics.

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